IPL 2023 | No pretending anymore – Impact Player rule the final nail in bowlers’ coffin
The Impact Player signal -- reportedly a reference to handcuffing bowlers|
T20s were quickly labelled a ‘batter’s format’, with the changing trends leading to lasting impacts in the two other formats as well. However, while bowlers over the years have clawed back prestige by adapting to T20’s demands, the Impact Player rule has once again placed them on the back foot.
I will say that T20 is a batter's game. Bringing in things like two new balls, it's all to encourage higher scores. As a bowler, you have to find a way to become successful.
When cricket turned professional two centuries ago, the equation on the field was simple – two teams of 11 compete to outscore the other and be declared the winner. Ever since, revolutions have run amok in the sport – the introduction of limited-overs cricket, colourful jerseys, private sponsors, T20 leagues, global franchises, mongoose bats, not-so-mongoose bats, two new balls per innings, DRS, Kerry Packer, Lalit Modi, the Glazers. Yet, the one core essence that has remained intact is the game being decided by which team has a better XI. Well, at least until IPL 2023 and the Impact Player rule came along.
The introduction of the regulation, and the option to announce lineups after the toss, have introduced a whole new dynamic into the game. It has transformed the way teams set up their XI in terms of player roles, effectively making them more potent with an extra batter and bowler at hand.
Either I have to bowl to a better batter or if I am batting, I have to face an extra hard bowler. The Impact Player certainly has made the game tougher
However, given the pace at which the shortest format is played and the small number of overs at hand, the scales have only further tilted in the favour of batters. T20 cricket in essence is not about taking wickets but restricting the flow of runs, with wickets simply a means to achieve the result. Granting teams an extra batter has effectively reduced the cost of each wicket in terms of impact on the team total, with the added batting depth allowing batsmen extra freedom to score runs at a quicker rate. In IPL 2023, there have already been a record 29 200-plus totals with 21 games still to play – the previous highest tally was 18, achieved last season. When Gujarat Titans lost their sixth wicket last season, R Sai Kishore used to walk in to bat with a T20 average of 4.14 and a strike rate of 111.53. This season, Abhinav Manohar bats in the same position for the reigning champions, with a T20 average of 32.12 and a strike rate over 150.
You've got to shift your targets. Five in 15 used to give you an open end; now, you've got to probably get at least one more. That means you have to continue to attack, not just defend. Those middle overs - the little soft overs - are now a heck a lot more challenging and your middle-order players now can't just get themselves into the innings cause they've actually got to continue to take the game on. It's definitely changed the game.
Moreover, teams can now cope better with early collapses, knowing they still have enough resources at hand to mitigate the early damage. Even in worst-case scenarios, they have the option to bring in an extra batter for an already departed one to keep themselves alive in the game. The average first-innings score when teams have lost two or more wickets in the powerplay has increased significantly for all franchises except Delhi Capitals and Rajasthan Royals. While the former have had to deal with a deflated David Warner amidst a misfiring batting lineup, the Royals have had just one collapse, with the incoming batters up against the lethal spin-duo of Rashid Khan and Noor Ahmed.
Anchor batters are of particular interest, given the Impact Player rule has the potential to completely change the dynamic of their role. The top-order mainstays are no longer required to exhibit the same restraint for it would simply result in a non-optimum utilization of enriched batting resources. For the sake of argument, I have picked David Warner, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli, Shubman Gill, and Devon Conway as the barometers for anchors in the tournament. The strike rate of all these noted anchors, bar Warner, has increased substantially in the powerplay compared to 2022, highlighting the more attacking intent they have been taking within the first six overs.
That being said, there has evidently been a conscious effort to give batters greater leverage in the latest edition of the tournament, be it by the teams or organizers themselves. The pitches have been flatter and the outfields quicker – all venues except for Delhi and Hyderabad have experienced a massive upsurge in the average first innings total compared to 2019. The two exceptions are no coincidence as well since they are the two grounds that have historically featured slow and dry tracks, ensuring teams can field an extra-spinner due to the Impact Player rule. When KKR visited the Arun Jaitley Stadium this year, Impact Player Anukul Roy bowled his entire quota of overs, making it 16 overs of spin in the second innings of the game to nearly defend a total of 127. Another reason for the discrepancy in the two stadiums compared to others is how sluggish the batting units have been for SRH and DC – they are the only two sides to have suffered a decline in average first innings score compared to 2022.
It is not all one-way traffic though, as is certain to keep any sport alive. Impact bowlers have given teams the opportunity to get rid of that fifth and sixth bowler who more often than not had the designated role of being the team’s punching bag. For instance, Mumbai Indians have upgraded from Murugan Ashwin as their primary middle-overs spin-enforcer to veteran Piyush Chawla, who currently is in contention for the Purple Cap. All-rounders Moeen Ali and Liam Livingstone made way for specialist spinners Maheesh Theekshana and Harpreet Brar respectively, while KKR’s spin-twins have had a new addition to the family in prodigy Suyash Sharma.
As a result, all anchors except Virat Kohli have suffered a decline in their strike rates in the middle overs in the ongoing season. When broken down further into segments of two overs, the data shows an incredibly consistent trend in strike rate in the middle overs, with batters accelerating and applying the brakes at the same stages. However, in 2023, the average strike throughout has consistently been better but remarkably, the acceleration tails off to be at par with last year’s numbers in the latter stages of the middle overs, highlighting the extra bowler’s sway in the crucial phase of the game. Additionally, on the rare tracks that have helped bowlers, the extra specialist bowler has ensured the side defending the low total has a fair shot of winning by exploiting conditions. A sub-150 target was set 13 times last year but was successfully defended only once while in 2023, four of 10 such totals have already been defended.
Such far-fetching changes in the way the game is played though begs the question of why the Impact Player rule was introduced in the first place. It is not exactly novel in concept, given BBL experimented with having an impact player come on through the X-factor role while the SA20 had skippers submit their team sheets after the toss in their inaugural season. However, neither league’s initiative was as radical nor did either combine the two phenomenons to influence the game in the way the Impact rule has. The most likely sporting factor behind the new innovation game seems to be the importance of dew in deciding the results of T20s in India and the huge undue advantages teams are credited with when batting second. Since 2019, 42 T20Is have been played in India, of which only five have been won by the team defending a target.
The Impact Player rule has given the sides setting a target an extra batter to boost their totals and thereby enhance the scoreboard pressure, making chases more challenging. The batters most commonly used as Impact Players by teams have fared significantly better in the first innings, enduring notable declines in both their average and strike rates when utilized during a chase. The results have shown a slight improvement as well consequently, with the winning percentage for teams batting first improving to 53% in IPL 2023 as compared to 50% last season. To put it another way, more games have already been won by teams batting first in IPL 2023 than in the entirety of last season.
Generally we look to come here and chase. With the extra batter thanks to the Impact Player rule, if we can post a big score, it'll create a scoreboard pressure.
Faf du Plessis, 2023
Conclusively, with the promise of elevating the overall level of cricket, the introduction of the Impact Player rule has helped make a batter-dominated game even more difficult for bowlers in IPL 2023 as far as the evidence is concerned. The problem has been compounded by the changed toss regulations since it eliminates the role of strategy in picking the Impact Player. Were teams not aware whether they would be bowling or batting first, they would likely stack their substitute bench with all-rounders of varying kinds instead of opting for specialists, aware that the conditions on offer is bound to see the batters overwhelm their bowling counterparts. Whether the advantage for batters would grow further once teams and players adapt to the rule is food for thought but the evidence certainly seems to be pointing in that direction.